King’s X, a three piece band from Texas, are hugely influential, have a large and loyal fan base, and last night played a show in London for the first time in six years. They are, perhaps the archetypical Cult Band.
But how did they get here? (and I don’t mean “by bus”)… And do they still have the ability to thrill an audience?
Last night I ventured forth into the humous and smashed-avacodo infested streets of Islington to find out, and to see Doug, Ty and Jerry: those pioneers of drop-tuned guitar sounds.
Sadly, the first qualifier we look for is a distinct lack of mainstream success…
King’s X certainly fit that criteria.
Bassist Doug Pinnick and drummer Jerry Gaskill met in Missouri, USA in 1979, both having been asked to join Petra, a successful Christian rock band of the day. The project fizzled out, but the pair remained friends.
Jerry met Ty Tabor one evening. Ty was a guitarist in a band whose drummer had quit. Ty asked Jerry if he would stand in on drums for the evening, and a friendship began.
The three eventually formed a band together, calling themselves The Edge. That name lasted three years before they changed from The Edge to (unfathomably) Sneak Preview.
I like to think in a parallel universe somewhere they kept the name and there’s a U2 with a lead guitarist called Sneak Preview.
They met Sam Taylor, who worked with ZZ Top’s manager. He became their manager, and Sneak Preview were renamed King’s X, much to everyone’s relief. A demo found its way to Megaforce records’ John Zazula, a man who played a part in the early success of Metallica and Anthrax, and they were in business.
It took until 1988 before King’s X released a debut album, called Out of the Silent Planet. Hot on its heels the following year came the catchily titled Gretchen Goes To Nebraska.
Both were critical successes. Out of the Silent Planet was Kerrang!’s Critics Album of the Year 1988. Amidst the likes of Metallica, Bon Jovi, Slayer and Van Halen, King’s X sounded completely, uniquely different to everything else out there. So far so good. All was poised for world domination.
But neither LP was a commercial success. Over the next decade King’s X released four more LPs, three under a major label, without setting the charts alight.
Successful or not, King’s X still play songs from all parts of their career, last night showcasing songs from nine of their twelve studio albums, from 1988’s Out of the Silent Planet, ’94’s Dogman and ’96’s Ear Candy, right up to 2008’s XV.
In 1988, Pininick wore military uniform and a Mohican, and in 2017 is still rake-thin, but dressed more simply in black t-shirt and jeans. His bass guitar is slung as low as the notes that rumble out from it. To his left, guitarist Ty Tabor wears a beanie hat and shades, having left the Lennon specs behind, but still produces that unmistakeable tone that makes King’s X so unique.
The Islington Assembley Hall is packed, upstairs and down, which brings us to the next requirement for cult status: You need an audience.
I first saw King’s X at their debut headline show at The Marquee in 1988 and a few months later at the same venue. They had an audience from the start.
At both shows I witnessed perhaps some of the biggest outpourings of love and excitement I have ever seen a band receive. At the first show, when the crowd bayed for another encore, the band sheepishly came back to explain they didn’t have any songs left to play. They appeared overwhelmed by the rapturous reception.
King’s X may never have realised their early potential as measured by commercial success, but in those two shows, King’s X realised their potential immediately. They could have retired as Legends, never to play again, with reputations assured.
All of which is fine, but once it has found one, a band needs to keep and grow an audience.
Nearly thirty years on from their debut album, it is interesting to see how King’s X has survived as the music industry has collapsed around them.
They could have taken the Poison method, delighting crowds who are there for nostalgic reasons (a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine captures the phenomenon brilliantly). But the song selection last night did not reflect a band looking to trade off one or two better known LPs.
As record sales have plummeted, the majority of money to be had in the music industry is made from live performances and merchandising. Therefore a band can stay relevant and current if they can tour and give people a reason to come back for more. To make each show an event, something vital and life affirming. And it is here where King’s X excel.
Pinnick is a charismatic front man. Opener “Groove Machine” segues into “The World Around Me” from 1992’s self-titled fourth album. Pinnick has lost little of his vocal power and his bass playing has only got more thunderous.
It is during “Pray”, from XV, where the gig really starts to warm up, and a welcome “Black Flag” and “Lost In Germany” stand out.
“A Box” allows Ty an extended solo. It flies. The song is from 1996’s “Ear Candy” but for a moment I am transported to 1989 again. The audience greet Tabor’s playing with spontaneous applause.
So yeah, this is a committed performance. They remain relevant in 2017.
To see how King’s X has formed a bond with its audience, we can look at the events of 2012, when drummer Gaskill suffered a heart attack and spent several weeks in an induced coma. His medical bills were met by fans purchasing live recordings specially released by the band for the purpose. It’s great to see Gaskill having recovered from that il-health, which together with a second heart attack in 2014 is the reason for their having been such a long gap between tours. He is on fine form.
The next element required of a cult band is influence.
To be truly in the upper echelons of cult-dom, your music needs to have been important to people. To have influenced perhaps more successful artists. Although King’s X sound like no-one else (oh, okay, Beatles crossed with Soundgarden) their tuned-down songs influenced a string of musicians, including Pearl Jam and Mudhoney.
The next ingredient for cult status is an undefinable one. Magic. And we find this in several places. In Doug’s rap during “Over My Head” where he speaks like a hell-fire minister of recent events in the world:
“No one has the f—ing right to kill someone in the name of something they believe in.”
“We breath, we live, we love. We have to keep an eye out for each other” he preaches.
Magic is also present in the “guess the drum beat” game of “Born To Be Loved”, and finally it is in the last song of the evening.
“Goldilox” is the sole tune from the debut album on display, and its treatment is simple but extraordinary.
The band turn the microphones toward the crowd, and the crowd sing every word all the way through.
I probably haven’t sung those words in twenty seven years. And yet I know every one. As does everyone else in the hall. Word for word.
It’s magic. And it is these little moments that bring a loyal audience back to see a cult band that has had little success, but is out there grafting, bringing energy to the shows, taking their music to the world.
That’s the last ingredient of a cult act: hard work.
Having the energy to keep playing. To keep smiling. And to keep on keeping on.
King’s X have the energy. They have the indefatigable Doug Pinnick. He’s there at the start, low slung bass growling at the audience. He’s there in the middle of the set, with his Little Richard whoops, and he’s there at the end, shirtless, milking the applause.
He’s also there outside the venue, grinning, meeting people, signing tickets and posing for photos. He’s just played a ninety minute set, but he’s got time for everybody, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
He’s sixty six years old, is Doug Pinnick. His energy is truly impressive. And this is what he does. Spreading the cult of King’s X music – and magic – across the world.
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